Several of the most promising technological research projects at University System of Maryland-related labs are getting a strategic infusion of federal cash to help them through the most difficult phase of development, and move them toward the commercial market.
With $5.1 million in federal funding, the Maryland Proof of Concept Alliance teams University System of Maryland research institutions and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL), in support of a wide array of emerging technologies. The University of Maryland, College Park is administering the program.
Eleven grants were announced today at the National Council for Entrepreneurial Technology Transfer conference in Washington, D.C. Among the technologies supported: a graphene replacement for silicon transistors, a new generation of powerful, ultra-thin batteries, laser devices that can sniff out dangerous gases over a distance, a new powerful class of antibiotics, and a commercial technique for producing biofuels from trash.
The Alliance seeks to bridge the difficult leap from lab to market. Small, strategic grants fund demonstration projects and additional research that can help prove the concept to potential investors – often a make-or-break challenge.
"Too many promising technologies never make it beyond university labs, when they could be commercially viable, and go on to create jobs and revenue," says the project's principal investigator and administrator, Jacques Gansler, who directs the University of Maryland's Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise. "A small, strategic investment at this early point allows researchers to prove to potential partners that their innovation is more than just a good idea."
Gansler brings to the project his experience as a former U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. He currently serves on the Pentagon's Defense Science Board.
Proof of Concept centers have worked successfully at some private universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California, where they have helped create dozens of companies. The Maryland Alliance is one of the first applications in the public sector.
Collaborating with Subject Matter Experts at the ARL in Adelphi and Aberdeen Maryland the program identifies and funds the most promising technologies developed through University System of Maryland institutions – so far, University of Maryland, College Park and private firms working with its Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute (Mtech), University of Maryland, Baltimore, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Among the technologies the program is advancing:
- Next-generation transistors: thin-film graphene with 100 times the capacity of silicon;
- Revolutionary thin-film battery to power military remote sensing devices;
- Miniature location device modeled on the super-efficient sensory array found in fly ears;
- Use of lasers to detect over distances the presence of potentially dangerous vapors;
- Imaging device to map the molecular surface of unknown bio-chem weapon materials;
- High-efficiency solar cell that uses a technology unique to Maryland;
- New class of antibiotics (RNase-L) that enhance people's natural immune response;
- Non-inflammatory battlefield surgical sutures that will reduce scarring;
- Producing super-efficient biofuels from trash; scaling-up for commercial production.
The grants are being made in stages. A first-round went out last spring, and a second-round of awards is now being made.
"This is all about new technology, new jobs and national security," said U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who championed the $5.1 million, two-year federal grant to fund the program. "It is so important that we invest in the technologies of the future - to keep our country safe, stay on the cutting edge and grow the innovation workforce of tomorrow."
University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh stresses the importance of programs like this, calling the collaboration between federal labs and state universities in Maryland an example of "spending smarter."
"This alliance leverages the abundant federal research presence in our state," says University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. 'Brit' Kirwan. "The System's research institutions are producing significant advances, and we need to make the most of them. By energizing some of our most promising work, the state and the nation will be big winners in the globally competitive innovation economy."
AWARDING THE GRANTS
The ARL evaluates all research proposals to identify the most promising ideas of interest to the Department of Defense. Final awards are made jointly with the University System of Maryland team, relying heavily on Mtech expertise in technology evaluation.
"We help determine which technologies have the most promising commercial potential," explains Martha Connolly, who directs Maryland Industrial Partnerships (MIPS), the Mtech program supporting emergent technologies under joint development by private firms and University System of Maryland researchers. "We work with some of the most promising technologies every day, so we have a good sense of what's out there, and what can succeed. Many of the best and freshest ideas are coming from small labs in and around our research universities."
ADDITIONAL RESEARCH SUPPORT
In addition to funding, the program makes key federal and University System of Maryland equipment available to researchers, as well as invaluable legal and business support to guide them to commercial operation.
Some Proof of Concept Alliance researchers have received support from Mtech programs, such as the Venture-Accelerator, which provides intense, hands-on mentoring to the hottest prospects. FlexEl LLC, for example sped commercialization of its advanced, ultra-thin batteries in this way. The company, now in the Mtech Advancement Program incubator received first- and second-round Alliance grants.
Other awardees have already formed companies to scale-up their techniques to commercial production levels, such as Zymetis, Inc. – a company formed by University of Maryland scientists who discovered a bacterium highly efficient at converting trash and other organic material to biofuels. Both FlexEl and Zymetis got early research support through MIPS.
"We're building on our already well-developed 'innovation ecosystem' that nurtures young companies and promising research," says Brian Darmody, who helped develop the program as associate vice president for research and economic development at the University of Maryland, and special vice chancellor for technology development at the University System of Maryland.
"An umbilical cord connects successful start-ups to major research universities and federal research clusters," Darmody adds. "Good ideas thrive when you nourish them. A proof of concept program – especially one that links federal labs and state research universities – is bound to have a major economic impact on the state. Academic and federal research and development is already one of Maryland's biggest economic sectors, and this program leverages that sector for additional job and venture creation."
The alliance is administered for the University System of Maryland by the Center for Public and Private Enterprise at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, the University of Maryland Division of Research, and the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute (Mtech) at the University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering assisted by the Army Research Laboratory's Sensor and Electron Devices Directorate.